Chicago-based improvisors Harrison George and Libby Schreiner have concocted an impressively ambitious new horror show, which takes audiences of 10 through a series of sporadically interactive scenes, full of detailed props and dark characters. CIC is converted into a Victorian mansion owned by Ms. Ella Rothschild, we meet a spiritual medium whose seances have unsettling and unexpected results.
Going beyond the typical "guy in a mask with a chainsaw" manipulations, Harrison and Libby have opted for more challenging scares with their take on a haunted house, using their experience as comedic performers to explore darker topics. Following a successful opening weekend, I spoke with Harrison about the show's creation and his motivations behind crafting an experience like this one.
A few tickets remain for this weekend's shows, which happen every hour, on the hour, from 1pm-5pm this Saturday and Sunday, October 25th and 26th. Reserve those by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org now!
The Steamroller: Were you a fan of haunted houses growing up? What was the impetus for this show's creation?
Harrison George: Not a fan. I'm a big wimp when it comes to pop-out scary stuff. Love scary movies, can't do haunted houses.
But I also think they're a cop out; the illusion that you are in any real danger is so flimsy. I went to one in high school with my brother, and he tripped and dropped his glasses, and they had to stop the whole thing, and they turned on the flood lights and all the zombies came out of their hiding places to help look for his glasses. And when he found them they just turned the lights back out and the dudes went back to their little corners, and we had to walk through the rest of the house for like, another 10 minutes. It really killed the mood.
I think words can be so much more upsetting than a guy in a mask who jumps out at you. We hope our show leaves people unsettled in a deeper way. In my eyes, my ideal haunted house would just be one guy in a room and you walk in and sit down and he says "Someday you are going to die and everyone you've ever met will forget you existed" and then you pay him five bucks and leave. That's scary to me.
TS: Have you been to/read about those "extreme" haunted houses that transcend the walkthrough jump-scare heavy traditions with experiential shows that are so physically intense that guests sign a waiver in advance? Sort of a torture porn Sleep No More sort of deal? Were those influential at all in the production of this show?
Harrison: Yes! I read about one in the Minneapolis where they kidnap you, drive you to the middle of nowhere and throw you in a big hole and bury you alive. Then after like 30 seconds they unbury you and disappear. I love that kind of stuff. I'd never do it in a million years, but I love the idea of it- real fear is based in the unexpected.
Shows like Sleep No More was a big influence for sure, and in general any kind of theater that makes the audience an integral part of the show.
TS: You researched how seances were done in the early 20th century when creating this show, was there anything surprising or strange about these shows that you learned?
Harrison: It was fun learning about real seances. One thing that stuck out was how often fishing line was used (to make objects float or make things appear/disappear). Were people dumber back then, on the whole? It doesn't matter what decade it is, you can spot fishing line when you see it.
At the same time though, this Mental Floss list of old timey Seance photos is scary as hell to me. The one where she's coughing up the gauze? What is that about??
TS: Were there any other shows or performers you looked to for inspiration or advice when setting up the seance?
Harrison: We pulled from a LOT of sources. The biggest was a recent show by Dan Shar and Jeff Murdoch, Life Is Not A Show, where the audience met at someone's apartment and followed one actor for 20 minutes. We were a fly on the wall the whole time. It was very surreal.
We talked to Clayton Margeson, who helped put up a show last year called Mindreader which I didn't see but everyone talks about; a live-action video game with an audience of one person at a time. Super impractical and complicated to do one person at a time, but awesome in to be like, "hey, that's the show."
We limited each show to 10 people and you have to reserve your ticket ahead of time; again, more pre-work but now we know each show will have an audience, and 10 is a good number to keep things intimate.
Our friend Adal Rifai was pivotal in making this show happen. He's a big fan of horror, loves interactive theater, came up with a TON of great ideas and ways to make them happen on stage. Very cool to have his help and eyes on the show.
Can I just take a minute and say how great it's been working with Libby Schreiner? I told her I wanted to do a horror show and she was on board from day one and has been so awesome. She was hustling to get people signed up and kept all of us on schedule. If you ever want to do a two person sketch show, do it with Libby.
TS: Do you think it's more challenging to elicit laughter or dread from people in a live setting like this? Both require a degree of suspension of disbelief, and are both very base emotions.
Harrison: Oh man, I don't know. I think about this a lot. I mainly do improv, and wonder if you do an improvised horror movie, like a real one, that doesn't just rely on horror movie tropes, but actually creates tension and dread, all made up on the spot? Comedy is just tension building too, but it's broken with laughter instead of screams.
I think laughter is easier. You can get a laugh off an amazing joke, or you can get it off a shitty topical reference, but it's hard to get different layers of scared- you're either scared or you aren't. That's why we are so excited about this show, to try for something harder and more mysterious. I guess we'll know pretty quick if we were able to get people scared. If they laugh, we fucked up.
TS: What was the most challenging part of producing the show? Was it something straightforward but complicated like coordinating tech or was it something more on the performance side, developing and refining the dark, disturbing material into hitting the tone you were hoping for in the show?
Harrison: The tech stuff for sure has been the hardest part. I don't have any training in theater, I know nothing about lights, props, costumes any of that- I'm starting from square one. And we made this show VERY prop-heavy. I was asking our main tech guy, Frank Leyden, to do some impossible stuff that I've never even seen people do in movies. Some of it he shot down right away, but I've been amazed at how much he was able to actually make happen.
The cool thing is, we have an amazing cast so if even half the tech stuff fails in the show, we'll have a bunch of smart talented people who are ready to work around it. Libby and I just gave them the basic framework for the show and they all wrote their own parts, found their costumes.
Also, Farrell and Sarah at CIC have been awesome- we came to them with just a basic idea, and they have helped us so much. They really take care of people there.